“No es un hombre una isla cualquiera, Cuba: es una isla rodeada de agua por todas partes menos una” (200)
A Cuban poet writes of his native country from the distance: No less, he writes from the Unites States. José Kozer’s first English anthology, Stet (2006), cannot be read as if it were produced outside of the conflictive relationship that has developed between Cuba and the United States over a time span of almost fifty years; yet, to reduce his poetry to its historical context would be unjust both to the poet and the work. Kozer’s work achieves something substantial in breaking through the paradigm of Cuba and the US, and moving beyond the complex relationship between the Island and its Diaspora, to give a sense of what it is to be Cuban. In a way, the work is not didactic, yet the act of re-constructing Cuban identity from outside of the island is overtly political.
Stet is a compelling voyage into the quotidian life and nostalgic remembrance of the poet: Composed of a selection of Kozer’s poetry spanning from as early as 1975 to the present, and translated and edited by Mark Weiss, it contains a vast amount of poems that give the reader an overview of the scope of the poet (the works here are selected from a pool of 6400 poems, Weiss mentions in his prologue).
José Kozer’s poetry demands an engaged reader: It is both intelligent and complex. The poetry is an amalgam of daily life, memories, and intellectual divagations, presented as a density of poetic matter; subjected to his poetic reason, all topics become poetic experience. Composed of the juxtaposition of unlikely units, Kozer’s images are imbued with complexity. As Jerome Rothenberg confirms in the blurb, Stet moves “from a particular person and place (Cuban, Jewish, caught between home and exile) into a tangle of locations and perceptions that gives his [Kozer’s] poetry a nearly epic status”. There is, perhaps, a trace of nostalgia in Kozer’s work, as he writes a subject who is an outsider.
The poetry is entrenched in the periphery, no doubt reflective of his own, and his family’s situation — in the first instance looking at the past of a Jewish family in Cuba, and secondly, in the present, as an exiled Cuban in the United States. But Kozer’s work seems nostalgic not only for his childhood home, Cuba, but for another time: For all that no longer is. The majority of it is situated outside of the place where the subject finds himself, as if looking in onto something that does not exists in the ‘real’ world but that is kept alive only by memory and Kozer’s words themselves. And so, steeped in the instability of remembering, Kozer’s poetry moves from the sensual to the erotic, the humorous to the descriptive. This is poetry for the senses as much as it is linguistic; poems made with images, from memories, of sensations. There are countless instances of this, for example, in ‘Gaudeamus’ (99) Kozer writes:
Here within arterial circulation thick, the thick body’s thick functions;
I am a honeycomb, a colony of ants circulates be —
tween my reefs (cells) sprouts drunken at the surface
I am pure bark. An (amber) enclosure of filtered
honey, an iris of light, resplendent.
The reader is left stranded in a myriad of words, trying to decipher their significance. In many of his poems the subject is defined in relation to nature: animals, insects, bird-life and vegetation all provide a dense landscape in which the reader looses himself without a compass. Fortunately, recurring themes and sentiments aid the reader — the significance of family, Cuba, childhood, Jewishness and language itself to Kozer and his poetry stand undisputed. Each time they appear, they bring back a common ground from where the reader can again depart. On a smaller scale, there are ants (tied perhaps to that wonderful final image of One Hundred Years of Solitude), lotus flowers, malachite, the number three, and the characters Guadalupe and Li Ching that return a familiarity that brings together diverse strands of the poems.
There is no doubt that Kozer’s exile has had a definitive impact on this complex writing. It is unimportant whether or not the poems are really biographical, because what is significant is that the poetry is deep-rooted in exile, and not simply the exile of a Cuban living in the US, but an exile that we are all a part of — exile as a general sense of understanding oneself.
Further, the fact that the poems are written in the language of Cervantes and Martí, and not in the language of his adopted country, deepens the sense of exile for a Cuban writing ‘from outside’ the island — the poet’s most intimate tool is always at odds. Kozer’s poetry is, at times, about language itself, a meditation on the power of words:
The flight fashioned the contours of an island of the Greater Antilles;
the island now of hurricanes, guásima trees, the mo-
ther tongue finally done with naming those things
at their hearts unsoundable.
(‘Tree of Life’ 89)
At first this may seem purely descriptive, an evoking image of Cuba, but these lines also respond to a recurring problematic in Latin American literatures, explicitly, the creation of a language capable of naming the specific character of the Americas. Since its inception, and throughout its history, there has been a literary impulse to find a new language to describe the particularities of the (so called) New World. Moreover, Kozer’s choice of the term ‘insondable’ (in its Spanish original) points to the unknowable-mysterious-character of those things subjected to the Word.
In another poem, ‘Gift’ (201), Kozer delineates the generally stretched relationship between language and the subject:
the Word he becomes the First Person. I see him now,
he embodies I, he’s scared: shocked, panicked. A man
isn’t any island, he’s Cuba: an island surrounded by
water on all sides except the top
This alienation is heightened by Kozer’s particular use of language that is at the forefront of his poetic enterprise. The words are chosen with a surgeon’s precision. In their Spanish original, the poems are extremely precise, without ambiguity. There is no doubt that Kozer’s work would be rather difficult to translate, and, as is often the case, it seems difficult to conceive of a translation as an equivalent of the original. This is also mostly due to the fact that Kozer furnishes his works with either antiquated or localised words, and constantly gives way to Cubanismos (particularly Cuban terms). As Weiss acknowledges in the preface to the poems:
I suppose I’m saying, with a shrug and a sigh, that, as far as translation is concerned, “you had to be there.” (Weiss 19).
Whether or not this provides a sufficient precaution to the reader is up to each individual. Having said this, Weiss translates many complex and loaded terms. This entails an ambitious process, as any translation may, but perhaps even more so in this instance, because Kozer’s poetry is tightly written in such a particular use of the Spanish. In their original the poems seem more acute than in English. In the translation process, it seems, the poems lose some of their discursive power.
Kozer is a truly Latin American poet, standing in a long tradition of those who take up the themes of identity and nationality (I am thinking here of the Argentine Julio Cortázar, or the famous Cuban, Alejo Carpentier). Having said that, one cannot ignore the problematic relation of the Cuban Diaspora to those left on the island. Kozer seems to sidestep any problems rather than engage them didactically: He choses to celebrate, and perhaps nostalgically, to return constantly to the Cuba of his childhood. It is as if Kozer’s Cuba is frozen in time: frozen in the images and memories that he divulges. He presents nationalism devoid of conflicting sentiments, and doesn’t enter into the contemporary Cuban struggle. Kozer only confronts his relation to the island directly once in Stet. In ‘First and Last’ (199) Kozer states:
My parents came from Poland and Czechoslovakia, at twenty I ousted myself from my country, foreseeing that the nation would take on something like the air of a general prison; that wasn’t to my taste (I would come to learn that the whole planet is a general prison): I was born in Cuba, where I left no progeny, and I will not return: I am the first and last Cuban generation.
After encountering Kozer’s Stet, one is left pondering, not only what is the problematic faced by the Cuban poet in exile but what is exile? Kozer’s poetry gives form to the otherness of physical exile and the exile of self-knowledge. The density of image and memory composed in collage provides this poetic experience. Entrenched in biography — reflecting on Jewishness, Cuba, family and exile — Kozer’s poetry manages to approach the universal. Stet is a substantial work from an accomplished poet.
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